Oh, ho the mistletoe
Hung where you can see
Somebody waits for you
Kiss her once for me
–“A Holly Jolly Christmas”
Even if you’ve never seen mistletoe, much less smooched beneath it, it may have been a part of your holiday tradition since childhood.
That’s because the 1964 Christmas special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” features Burl Ives, in the voice of narrator Sam the Snowman, singing “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” All the while, prospector Yukon Cornelius hoists a tower of four elves hanging mistletoe and Rudolph gives the doe Clarice a peck on her cheek.
The poinsettia may be the most popular Christmas plant, but mistletoe seems to have the edge when it comes to appearances in Christmas songs. Everyone from Ives and Perry Como to Michael Buble and Alan Jackson has covered “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Justin Bieber has a song titled, simply, “Mistletoe.”
For many of us, however, mistletoe is a mystery. Royer’s sells fresh poinsettias by the tens of thousand, in dozens of sizes and varieties, but a much smaller quantity of preserved mistletoe, offered in a four-inch cluster with a bow packaged in a box.
“It’s a novelty more than anything now,” said Cheryl Brill, Royer’s chief operating officer. The typical customer is a young guy.
Not to be eaten
Yet while mistletoe is associated with kissing and Christmas, its role in nature is anything but beneficent. In fact, it’s the Grinch of holiday plants, an honest-to-goodness parasite.
“Mistletoe is an evergreen pest that attaches itself to trees, plants and shrubs, stealing their nutrients and water,” a CBS News story noted. “This can weaken or disfigure the host plant, and eventually even kill it.”
The genus name for North American oak mistletoe, the most common species in the eastern United States, is “phoradendron,” which is Greek for “tree thief.”
Mistletoe is difficult to remove because its seeds sprout and grow through the bark of trees and into their tissues, extending up and down within the branches.
“The most effective way to fight it is to remove an infected branch or limb entirely,” according to CBS.
Mistletoe has a misanthropic side, too. A person eating any part of it may experience drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness or seizures. These symptoms are caused by phoratoxin, which can be found in mistletoe berries and especially in the leaves. (Several types of mistletoe can be poisonous to pets, too.)
“Throw in the fact that some species are poisonous, and mistletoe starts to seem less like something you’d spy mama kissing Santa under and more like something Krampus would plant on your Christmas tree,” an article on the National Geographic website noted.
Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon in folklore that punishes children who misbehave, in contrast with St. Nicholas rewarding well-behave children with gifts.
But in this season of giving, it seems only fair to consider mistletoe in a positive light. Because it steals water and nutrients, mistletoe stays green year-round and is a symbol of fertility to some people.
“The plant’s parasitic nature is probably why people began to think mistletoe was special enough to kiss under in the first place,” according to National Geographic.
In Europe, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute website, “mistletoe extracts are among the most prescribed therapies for cancer patients.” However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition.
Ancient Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe often grows near bird droppings, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Hence, its name derived from “mistel,” which means dung, and “tan,” which means twig. Therefore, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.”
Studies suggest that when certain species of mistletoe were removed from ecosystems in Australia and Mexico, birds suffered.
As it matures, mistletoe can grow into thick, often rounded masses of branches and stems that can reach as big as five feet wide and 50 pounds and sometimes called “witches’ brooms.” Some birds, including wrens, chickadees, mourning doves and pygmy nuthatches, nest in these witches brooms.
Some butterflies lay their eggs in mistletoe, their young eating the leaves and adults (and some native bees) feeding on mistletoe nectar. Mistletoe’s white berries are a no-no for people, but they are favored in the fall and winter by the likes of deer, elk, squirrels, chipmunks and porcupines.
Clearly mistletoe endures as a symbol of Christmas joy and wonder. Charles Dickens, in the “Pickwick Papers” in the 1830s, called mistletoe the “mystic branch.”
The Hallmark Channel carries on that tradition with movies bearing titles such as, “Moonlight and Mistletoe, “The Mistletoe Promise,” and “The Mistletoe Secret.”
Of course, the happy ending is always sealed with a kiss.